A Recipe for Modernism and the Somatic Intellect in the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons
Bruner, Belinda, Papers on Language & Literature
Long relegated to the position of subservient wife of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas is a distinctive writer in her own right; The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book is a witty, enthralling text flavored with philosophical musing and domestic storytelling. The 1954 cookbook provides insight into the bohemian lifestyle of the Modern expatriates through the narrative that binds the recipes and presents readers with an artifact of lesbian domesticity. While studies have compared Toklas's What Is Remembered with Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, (1) Toklas's cookbook has received spare critical attention. The most notable exception is Anna Linzie's work on what she calls the "three Toklas autobiographies." Linzie suggests that Modernism as readers know it may not have been possible without Toklas's contributions. The voice and style Stein and Toklas share should leave readers with a chicken or egg dilemma, especially within the context of current questions of authorship and narrativity. In addition to flaunting a Gertrudistic sense of humor and presenting her recipes with wit and creativity, Toklas's cookbook continues to reveal the extent to which the two women influenced each other and, in turn, influenced the development of Modernism. While using Toklas to help construct her own position as genius, Gertrude Stein, together with Toklas, built the foundation for modern and contemporary questioning of conventional authorship and voice; the two women are also responsible for increased attention to the physical in Modern writing. Looking at The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book for its own merits and in comparison with Stein's Tender Buttons, one recognizes several complications of the anxiety of influence. Particularly noteworthy are three features of the development of Modernism as a literary genre: the privileging of the physical over the intellectual, the increased treatment of female experience, and questions of voice and perspective. Focusing on Toklas is intended to demonstrate her capabilities as a writer and to suggest that Toklas played a more significant role in the development of Modernism than has been previously acknowledged, "marijuana brownie" (2) recipes notwithstanding. Stein's work under study here exemplifies her movement from an intellectual grasp of language to a domestic and tactile aesthetic. In addition to Linzie's work, studies by Holly Laird and Rebecca Scherr create the backbone for a close reading of several passages of works by Toklas and Stein. Further, scholars should note the ramifications of Linzie's work; what she suggests and lays the groundwork for is a radical reinterpretation of Modernism and Stein's contribution to its development. To prove that Toklas was a great force in the directions of Modernism would be a lengthy and speculative project. What might be done here, however, is to recognize Stein's signature seal as being irrevocably linked to that of Toklas by comparing samples of the two authors' work. My suggestion is that Toklas continues Stein's word play and narrative strategy after Stein's death as an instinctive preservation of what she has known and as imitation based on true devotion; Toklas, however, did not merely influence Stein as Stein constructed her position as genius but created Gertrude Stein, as readers have come to recognize her, by seducing Stein through the realm of the sensual and introducing her to its poetic possibilities. In her discussion of "tactile erotics," Scherr argues that Stein invented this aesthetic approach to writing. It is fruitful to compare Scherr's concept with my reading of Stein's aesthetic, which I term the "somatic intellect." Scherr maintains that Stein "draws on the realm of the senses as a mode for questioning, resisting, shifting, experimenting with, and undermining literary and cultural practices" (194). She argues that Stein's work focuses on the senses, tactile in particular, and provides examples that can be read as Stein's "attempts to mime texture" (197). I thoroughly second Scherr's analysis of Stein as I focus on Toklas's capabilities as a writer and her contributions to Stein's poetics. While, by all accounts, remarkably happy as Stein's "wife," Toklas had creative ambitions that were not fulfilled until after Stein died in 1946. (3) At that time, Toklas began what Edward Burns maintains she considered her "work"--letter-writing. Though grieving after Stein's death, Toklas eventually managed to produce two cookbooks, her own memoirs, and volumes of letters, fulfilling her professional ambitions as well as easing financial burdens, something Stein had teasingly encouraged Toklas to do. When Gertrude Stein, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, begins to reveal that it is indeed she herself who has written Toklas's autobiography, the appropriated voice of Toklas says,
She began to tease me and say that I should write my autobiography. Just think, she would say, what a lot of money you would make. She then began to invent titles for my autobiography. My Life With The Great, Wives of Geniuses I Have Sat With, My Twenty-five Years With Gertrude Stein. (251)
Despite Stein's use of Toklas in order to emphasize her own greatness, Toklas was able to take her own voice back, beginning with the telegram she composed on July 27th, 1946: "Gertrude died this afternoon. I am writing" (qtd. in Burns 3).
After Stein's death, Gabriele Griffin contends, "Toklas was ushered into articulation" by the loss (146). Her compelling argument comparing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas with What Is Remembered, though neglecting Toklas's cookbook, highlights the idea that Toklas's writing proves she had her own definition of self despite the circumstance of having been "created" by Stein in The Autobiography. Griffin points out that What Is Remembered begins with a relative pronoun, uses passive voice, and leaves the subject unnamed, and she maintains that Toklas is "defined as a relational being rather than a separate individual. Her textual existence was determined, indeed created, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" (143). I argue the opposite, that it was Toklas who created Stein, though Griffin's specification of a "textual" existence invites comparison with an intellectual, embodied, and self-actualized existence; this is provocative and merits further examination. Linda Simon, in her biography of Toklas, maintains that despite Toklas's insistence to friends that the cookbook was written for the money only and not as a serious effort at writing, Toklas was eager and excited by the prospect of writing a cookbook and that "she was finally going to reveal herself to the world" (217). Diana Souhami tells of Toklas's hardships but also reports that Toklas had long felt inhibited about writing:
Carl Van Vechten thought Gertrude had made Alice scared even of writing a long letter. He told Donald Gallup he saw two scenes where Gertrude ridiculed her about writing a cookbook. Alice had longed to do this and had collected recipes since she was a child. She was so upset, after one of these scenes, she would not speak to Gertrude for two days. The result was that Alice was terrified at putting pen to paper, if the subject was Gertrude. (260) (4)
Even on the subject of cooking, Toklas's forte, she referred to her own writing as a "humble" effort and reports in a letter to Van Vechten that "hilarity" ensued when she and Stein had their hands read and were told that Toklas possessed "a writer's" hands (Burns 187). And Stein was not the only person to scorn Toklas's aspirations: "I once told Thornton Wilder I was going to write a cook book …
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Publication information: Article title: A Recipe for Modernism and the Somatic Intellect in the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. Contributors: Bruner, Belinda - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 45. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2009. Page number: 411+. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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